8 Steps to Starting a Free Online Service

Posted by Nessa | Posted in uncategorized | Posted on 28-03-2010

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Working in the web hosting industry, I come across a lot of interesting sites and not surprisingly, I’ve found that a good number of new site owners have at least one of two goals in mind – to become well-known on the Internet, or to make money…sometimes even both.  It’s also not surprising to find out that less than an eighth of the people that have these goals will never meet them.

One of the more common trends I’ve noticed is the creation of free services.  No individual wants to pay for using things on the Internet nowadays, and anyone who has a choice between a paid and a free service will consider the free choice first.  Offering a free service also may mean big bucks for you in the long run, so if you were thinking about enhancing your presence on the Internet by offering a service, here are some tips to help get you started.

1) Come up with a solution

People turn to using services because they provide some kind of value that can help or solve a real-life issue. For instance, Mint.com offers free financial planning services. Facebook and MySpace offer social networking to help you keep in touch with other people. These services were unique to their time, which is why they are so popular – and now millions of people use them.  The first thing you should think about when starting any new service is what you can offer for people that may have a dilemma or need for efficiency. Stuck?  Carry a mini notebook around and jot down things that you do on a daily basis, then look back and think: Is there something on this list that would be easier to do or track if there was a something out there to help me out?  Also, don’t waste your time trying to clone free services that already exist unless you’re prepared to offer something that they don’t.  Instead, focus on coming up with something unique.

2) See what’s already out there

When I was in technical support, I would come across at least two customers every week that appeared to be starting some kind of social networking site, and some even admitted that they’re trying to launch the next MySpace.  Let’s get a reality check here – most of the popular social networking sites out there have been around for years and by now have millions of users, and are endorsed by multi-billion dollar companies.  You’re not going to have the next eBay or Youtube, so don’t waste your time trying.   When there are already hundreds of services offering the one that you’re trying to launch, you really need to know what you’re doing if you plan on being successful at reaching your target audience.  Your best bet at success is offering something that no one else does.

Instead, again, focus on bringing something new to the table or improving a service that isn’t as readily available.  One of the best ways to get attention for a free service is basing it off a paid one that is at least moderately successful.  The simple concept of something being free will entice your targeted audience to at least try it.

3) Figure out how you’re going to do it

Listen here, dreamer – if you want people to use your service, you have to do some a lot of technical planning.  Depending on what kind of service you’re starting, you may end up needing a design and custom content management software for your website, neither of which comes easy or cheap.  If you’re tech-savvy, expect to spend at least 10 hours a week for several months on development alone. If you’re not a technical person when it comes to programming and site design, well, let’s hope you have quite a bit of money saved up.

But – don’t just start throwing a bunch of junk together. You need to site down with a pencil and paper and plan out all the major aspects of your website before you get started.  This tends to be the most time-consuming part of the entire process if you’re doing this all yourself, because you have to think about how everything is going to tie together as far as programming, layout, and security.  Then there’s the actual doing of all this, which takes even more time.  Be aware of exactly what you’re needing and how long it’s actually going to take. Once you have a plan, start on it as soon as possible.  It helps to make an outline of what needs to get done, and then set deadlines for those items.

4) Think about maintenance

Running a service doesn’t end at its launch, that is, if you want your users to continue using it.  You need to think about how you’re going to support and maintain your service – your users may try to contact you every so often if they need help, or the site itself may eventually need maintenance and updates performed.  If you don’t think you’re going to be able to maintain the site yourself, see if you have any friends that will be willing to help out. Depending on how successful your service ends up, you may eventually need to hire staff members to help you maintain the site.

5) Make it free for them, but profitable to you

You’ll want to make all this worth your time, otherwise you’ll probably end up giving up.  Free services are almost always supported by paid ads, which offer a per-click or per-sale incentive for you.  Always consider putting ads or endorsements on the site that will bring in money, but make sure they are relevant to what your service is offering and they don’t affect the usability of the site.  Search places like Commission Junction for affiliate programs or other services that you think your users will find helpful. Either way, find ways to make your site profitable, whether it be supported by ads, or giving the option for users to upgrade to a paid service that offers a few more features.

6) Cover your ass

Believe it or not, people can pretty much be sued for anything nowadays, regardless of how stupid it is.  I’m not saying that you need to hire a lawyer, but you need to make sure your bases are covered when it comes to dealing with people that are either just out for money, or want to take things to the extreme by holding you accountable for their problems. Anytime you offer a service, you’re going to have people who are not satisfied.  Therefore, you’ll want to draft a Terms of Use and/or legal document on your site specifically stating that you’re not responsible for what your users do, or how your service works.  Basically, don’t offer any kind of guarantee, and let your users know that they are using your service at their own rish.  The exception is in cases where personal information is stolen, as if you obtain and store such information on your site you are responsible for its security.  That also brings up the point that you should avoid obtaining personal information for your members that isn’t necessary for then to use your site.  If you do have to obtain such information, take a few extra steps to secure it and cover yourself against liability by encrptying information and getting PCI certified by a trusted provider.

7) Make it known

You need to get the word out about what you’re trying to do, and set it up far enough in advance to where people are actually looking forward – and waiting anxiously – to using your service. This means using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks to tell everyone about the site, and reach out to other blog owners that may be interested in posting about it.  You’ll want to start letting people know about it at least 2-4 weeks before your expected launch date.  Your site should have a visually-friendly page up indicating what services and features you will offer, when they will be available, and that it’s free.  It may also be worth setting up a mailing list that people can opt into so they are notified of updates, and purchasing ad space on more popular sites, which can eventually pay off if your service is a success.

8) Stick with it

One of the hardest parts of starting anything is sticking with it. In this case, you may be looking at a project lasting six months to well over a year.  If you think about giving up, motivate yourself by thinking about how much money you’re going to make, or how you’re going to be helping people.  If you find yourself in a bind, consider getting help or making your goals a little more realistic.

Which Programming Language is For You?

Posted by Nessa | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 30-10-2007

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Working with a webhosting company I get asked all the time — which programming language is better? It’s obvious that I’m more bias towards PHP, but there are other great languages out there that may be more suitable for certain people creating certain sites. I’ve decided to write a nutshell comparison on the most common languages, so you can decide for yourself.

PHP

My preferred language, PHP, is the most popular and widely-used dynamic programming language on the Internet. As a result, it’s increasingly become easy to learn (I have 4 brain cells and even I could do it) and can be run on virtually any operating system. It’s popularity has resulted in the availability of thundreds of contributions, modules, and addons for PHP to increase its functionality and integration with other software. It’s also free to download and easy to install (for most people), and is the most common in CMS’s and prebundled website software.

The major downside to PHP is that it’s so popular that security holes are being found all the time. Its very nature requires some configuration changes and restrictions in order to boost security.

Perl

Perl is one of the oldest and most successful languages to date. With thousands of modules that can be added, it can pretty much do anything. While it’s currently not as popular as PHP, it’s more efficient for server management in its double use as a shell scripting language. It’s also open-source and compatible for most all OS’s. The only real downside is that it’s not as quick and easy to learn, and even the simplest tasks can take more programming and lines of code to accomplish. Also, the camel logo is fugly.

ASP/VBScript

I’ll try to be nice about this one. Really, I’m not an ASP fan mainly because it’s proprietary to Windows and IIS. That being said, I’m sure you can figure how secure and reliable it is. It’s not as actively maintained by its developers (Microsoft) so major bugs have been known to linger for months — unacceptable for busy webmasters trying to manage professional websites. While ASP, .net, and VBScript (aka the ASP family) are all “free”, if you want any of the fancy addons or modules for them you’ll be owing Microsoft a nice little licensing fee. On a positive note, Chilisoft has made is possible to port ASP over to Linux, so it’s no longer 100% platform dependent.

JSP

Java Server Pages (developed by Sun) is more similar to the ASP framework, but targeted towards Java fanatics. Out of all the programming languages I’ve studied in school, JSP is probably my least favorite. Not only is it hard to learn, but there’s no such thing as simplicity with it. However, it’s very powerful software and is platform-independent, as long as you have a Java Environment for it to run in. Tomcat (an Apache Project) is the most common servlet container for JSP. But, Java takes up a lot of memory and JSP servers are very difficult to maintain and administer for non-experts.

Ruby

Ruby is one of the newer programming language to hit the web developer market, and it’s actually quite close in concept to PHP except that it’s 100% object-oriented, and very clean because you don’t need as much punctuation. It’s also very beginner-friendly, and is growing in popularity. The main disadvantage to Ruby is that it’s difficult to troubleshoot runtime errors because its reluctance to declare variables before their use. And being that it’s a newer language, there are definitely less resources available and not as many applications currently employing Ruby as a framework. However, it is cross-platform compatible, easy to install, and even easier to learn.

Python

I really don’t know a whole lot about Python other than that expert programmers claim that it’s such a strong language. I personally think it’s crap…my one shot at Python and I find out that it’s very whitespace/tab sensitive, so one extra space can ruin your program. Coming from PHP I don’t find that very appealing…I personally think it’s a mistake, and that its developers just call it a ‘programming guideline’ since they can’t figure out how to fix it. Really, there’s no huge benefit in using Python other than for your Google sitemaps, so all I’m going to say is steer clear.

HTML

I put this at the bottom of the list because I don’t really consider it a programming language, but it is the more predominate and widely used language that all the others revolve around. I do think it’s important that every programmer become an expert in HTML before going dynamic with their coding. While other languages rely on HTML for output, it’s very common for sites to be purely HTML and nothing else. However, HTML is a static language with no dynamic capabilities in itself whatsoever, so it’s somewhat boring on its own

Client-side

In a category all its own, there are several client-side languages that augment the others. Client side languages no require any server-side software to be installed, just a browser capable of interpreting them. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is a language primarily used in formatting and creating a uniform and repetitive style for use across multiple pages. JavaScript is a mini-java language used to create mild effects for a website, like popup windows and form validation. I also consider it to be very insecure, so it should be used sparingly. AJAX is a newer JavaScript framework that is more appealing to the eye and lets you create those special effects that you see on many web 2.0 sites…things like refresh-less page loading.

Increase Your Blog Traffic

Posted by Nessa | Posted in uncategorized | Posted on 15-06-2007

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Yes, it’s another one of those. It seems that every blog has its own tips for increasing traffic, so I decided to add my own tips that seem to have worked for my site

WordPress 2.2 “Released”

Posted by Nessa | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 15-05-2007

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And I use the word “released” very loosely. Yes, I just upgraded my blog to use WordPress 2.2 after this guy made it sound delicious. No, I don’t regret it, but I do think it would be best to wait for a bugfix. I shall start with the positives:

- It’s optimized a bit more to help your site load faster. This may or may not be noticeable to you, but it probably is to your webhost

- It’s harder to break your site by enabling a botched plugin. I tried to enable Staticized-Reloaded and I got what I interpret as the “WordPress Screen of Death”:

Wordpress Plugin Error

This is also a shame because this happens to be one bad-ass plugin.

Now for the bad, which outweighs the good:

- Don’t be surprised if your plugin database disappears. From some odd reason, WordPress could only find it after I created a new plugins folder and copied over my plugin files again….and yes, I had to re-enable all 30 of them.

- WP-Cache no longer works (at the time of this writing), and you’ll find that enabling it will cause some strange behavior on your blog. Oddly enough it also caused my plugin database to be erased yet again

- TinyMCE (the WYSIWYG editor) malfunctions, esp. in Firefox when trying to use certain functions.

- You may need to tweak your theme a bit. I had to make several code modifications to my sidebar and header files.

- Your boobs might shrink in size. Oops, wait…that’s what happens when you stop taking birth control.

Anywho, those of you who are thinking on upgrading, be prepared to spend a few minutes messing with your site and testing your plugins and such. It may be a good idea to wait for a bugfix, which by WordPress history will probably be out within the next few days.

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Posted by Jason | Posted in uncategorized | Posted on 25-04-2007

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The Net continues to grow in popularity and importance for consumers and businesses alike. Therefore, the quality of sites needs to keep pace. Creating and maintaining high-quality websites is more important now than ever. Higher quality equals more revenue.

The following lists the top ten ways that a website misses the boat and contributes to hair loss and nervous breakdowns. Notice the common thread that runs throughout each of these. Namely, a bad website neglects to consider the site visitor’s experience in some fundamental ways.

Optimizing PHP, Revisited.

Posted by Nessa | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 16-04-2007

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I wrote an article a while back on PHP optimization, but it was pretty lacking in most aspects, probably because I’m a lazy poster. I’ve revisited that article and reposted to hopfully have it be a little more helpful on the area.

Radiant CMS is Gorgeous

Posted by Nessa | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 15-01-2007

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Radiant CMSIf you haven’t heard the news, Radiant CMS is finally making its presence on the internet. Of course, you wouldn’t have heard the news unless you’re a dork like me. Anyways, I thought it would be worth mentioning as this is probably one of the sexiest content management systems I’ve seen yet. But really, I just like the color. And the logo’s nice too.

Check out Chris and Luke’s sites, which are currently running Radiant with Ruby on Rails.